Friday, 10 August 2012

Of Saintly Jawbones And Tear-Filled Eyes

I’ve seen the relics of St Anthony. Yesterday I stood in line and filed quietly past his jawbone, tongue and vocal chords in the Basilica di Sant’Antonio. To be honest, I was in the queue before I realised where it was leading and it was only when I suddenly saw what looked like someone’s dentures that I realised what it was I was looking at.

My husband and I are visiting Italy at the moment, whilst Ramadan continues in Riyadh. Milan, Verona, and now Padua. Soon we will join my daughter in Tuscany.

St Anthony is the patron saint of Padua. He died just outside the city in 1231.  I already knew that he’s the saint to pray to when you’ve lost something. (I have a friend who often lights a candle to St Anthony when I’ve lost something. It does often turn up.) I didn’t realise he was also an eloquent preacher; hence the particular relevance of these relics. He’s an omnipresent figure in Padua. Even the small cookies we bought yesterday came with a St Anthony sticker.

Inside the Basilica and grounds there were pilgrims everywhere. They lined the cloisters. They wrote prayer requests for things they’d lost on small pieces of paper. They reached out to touch the dark stone tomb of St Anthony, praying aloud with eyes shut and heads bowed. One woman stood alone in a corner and held a rosary. Her lips moved in silent incantation as her fingers went from one bead to another.
We sat a while observing and then left through the gift shop. By the exit we passed a desk where pilgrims paid one euro and handed in their prayer requests. The process was not entirely clear, but as I looked at money and paper changing hands, the word indulgences suddenly came to mind.

Standing outside in the bright sunlight, the Basilica was quite unlike any other church I’d ever seen. Its eight domes and minaret-like bell towers gave it an almost Middle Eastern look. However, there was nothing Middle Eastern about the church bells that we heard each morning from our small hotel just a stone’s throw away.
Coming from Riyadh, where the call to prayer permeates our very existence, church bells were music for the soul.
Leaving the faithful behind, we wandered through Padua’s medieval cobbled streets, towards the Cappella degli Scrovegni and Giotto’s frescoes. I’d studied these and seen pictures of them, but to really see them as and where they’d been painted was a pretty exciting prospect.
Well, it should have been exciting. I don’t know whether it was the intensity of the sunlight or something that got into my eyes but by the time we’d got into the chapel my eyes were streaming.
Everytime I looked up at the blue star-studded roof of the chapel or wanted to see a particular artistic detail I had to reach for a tissue and wipe at my watering eyes. Those round about must have been pretty impressed at the depth of my emotional response to Giottos’s art.
Walking back to our hotel, we passed the Universita Palazzo Centrale.  Galileo had taught here from 1592 to 1610 and I’d read that it was possible to see his battered desk and podium. This was definitely another place I wanted to visit.
However, with my eyes still running, I knew it was not going to be today. Better instead to retreat to the air-conditioned cool and shade of our hotel.
Galileo would have to wait ’til tomorrow.

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